Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


A Lunch in the Country.

The road that ran from west to east through the small Gippsland town was its only street. If you kept going you would end up at Neerim South, with Neerim North and Neerim East beyond. There is no Neerim proper; and Neerim West would be in the middle of the Tarago Reservoir. GPS is useless out here.

The town was high on a hill and other peaks were visible in the distance. Cows grazed on their impossibly steep hills. They looked like they should fall off, but they stuck, like fuzzy felt.

It was a warm Saturday around lunch time. A white sedan pulled up in the main - only - street outside a café. Three women got out of the car. The driver was a sprightly, white-haired octogenarian and wore a cream blouse over tartan trousers and soft leather shoes. She looked like a senior golfer. The two younger women, her daughters, might have been in their early forties but looked years younger. Both had shoulder-length brown hair and wore t-shirts over designer jeans and the kind of running shoes you don't run in.

The café was busy. The women waited. A waitress bustled up to the counter. "Are you coming or going?" she asked. Maybe she had a bad memory for faces, and couldn't remember whether she'd just served them or never seen them before in her life. "We've been busy," the waitress added.

"We have a booking," countered the octogenarian.

"Then you'll have to wait while I clear a table," shot back the waitress. The women looked at each other, speechless, wondering at the insane kernel of logic buried deep in the heart of the waitress's reply.

Ten minutes later, they were sitting at a table reading menus. On the table was a lit candle. It was scented. The mother blew it out. "Why on earth would any place selling food put scented candles on the tables?" she asked.

The cafe was the kind of place that did everything from light snacks to hot meals. The older sister looked at the racks of wine glasses in a cabinet at the side wall. She was looking forward to a glass of wine. It was still busy. They waited. Finally they ordered - a chicken parmigiana for the mother, a quiche and salad for the older daughter, and a salad roll for the younger daughter, who explained she had had a late breakfast and wasn't hungry. Then the waitress told them they could not have any wine. "The wine licence hasn't come through yet," she told them brightly, "but it won't be long!" She went away again. "A bit cruel to have glasses on display, then," said the mother to her disappearing back.

Forty minutes went by. The waitress brought out one plate. It was the mother's parmigiana. She waited. "Start," said the younger daughter. "It will go cold. This could be one of those one-meal-at-a-time places." She was right.

Her mother picked up her knife and fork. "It's burnt," she said quietly, using her fork to reveal the carbon under the sauce. "Also, it's one of those flattened heart-shaped ones they sell frozen in supermarkets. They should be making it from scratch."

They waited until the waitress brought the next plate out - the older daughter's quiche - and told the waitress about the burnt chicken and she took it away. Fifteen minutes later a fresh parmigiana was placed before the mother. There was still no sign of the salad roll. Mother picked up her cutlery. The two daughters waited, watching. "It's underdone!" she announced. They laughed. This was perfect. It was turning into a parody.

"Let me see, mum." The older daughter took the fork and tried some of the chicken. "It's fine, mum," she said, uncertainly. "Just a little cold in the middle."

Ten minutes later, the younger daughter's salad roll arrived. "It better be good," said her older sister. In a hamburger bun were lettuce, thinly sliced tomato, and a thick smear of avocado. The younger daughter picked up the roll and it crunched as she bit into it. The crunch was not the lettuce, but the roll's lower crust. It was stale.

"A hamburger roll is slightly dry anyway," said the older sister, an expert baker, "it's not suitable for salad in any case, let alone when it's stale!"

"Exactly," concurred her sister. "It is meant to lay under a thick steak, and become moist by soaking up its warm, hot juices; not support a limp lettuce leaf."

The mother stared at one and then the other, as if trying to follow the conversation. "Why didn't you order a burger, then," she asked. "I wasn't hungry, mum," she laughed. "We're just talking."

They didn't order dessert. The waitress asked was everything all right, and the older daughter said that her sister's roll was a bit underwhelming, and did she think they could have hunted around the kitchen for a bit of beetroot or grated carrot or cucumber ... or even a slice of cold meat or cheese? "Oh, you have to ask for extras," said the waitress airily. "But it did have avocado." That insane logic again.


Outside, the cows didn't seem to have moved from their positions on the far steep green hills. The smell of wild flowers was in the air. The sun shone. The birds sang. It was a perfect spring day. Inside the restaurant, the chef was crashing pots when the waitress came into the kitchen. "Any other complaints?" the chef asked. "Some people are never happy."

The white sedan moved away from the kerb. The mother drove on to her house in the next town. Inside, the older daughter opened a bottle of wine and got three glasses. They sat out on the balcony and watched the quiet hills. "Happy eightieth birthday, Mum!" the two daughters said.


Dr. Alice said...

If I ran the universe, I'd make sure restaurants like that were burnt to the ground.

kitchen hand said...

The chefs in places like these could probably manage on their own.